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Kosovo trial clears Serbia leader

Serbian ex-President Milan Milutinovic has been acquitted on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Kosovo by a UN war crimes tribunal.

Five former top Serbian officials were found guilty on some or all the charges relating to the 1990s conflict. Their sentences range from 15 to 22 years.

It was the court’s first ruling on alleged crimes committed by Serbian forces in the breakaway region.

Mr Milutinovic was seen largely as a figurehead president during that time.

The court found that the 66-year-old, who led Serbia from December 1997 to December 2002, had no direct control over the Yugoslav army. His release from custody was ordered.

Judge Iain Bonomy pointed the finger at then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, saying: “In practice, it was Milosevic, sometimes termed the ‘Supreme Commander’, who exercised actual command authority over the [Serb army] during the Nato campaign.”

n the late 1990s, Milosevic’s forces were attempting to suppress the ethnic Albanian majority’s independence campaign in Kosovo.

The region, under UN control after Nato drove out Serb forces in 1999, unilaterally declared independence from Serbia a year ago.

Mr Milutinovic and his fellow defendants at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) – all of whom had been allies of Milosevic – had denied all the charges against them.

His five co-accused were convicted for what the judges described as a “broad campaign of violence directed against the Kosovo Albanian civilian population”.

Ex-Yugoslav deputy prime minister Nikola Sainovic, ex-Yugoslav army general Nebojsa Pavkovic and former Serbian police public security service chief Sreten Lukic were found guilty on all counts and were each sentenced to 22 years in jail.

The charges included deportation and forcible transfer, murder and persecution.

Former Yugoslav army chief of staff and defence minister Dragoljub Ojdanic and ex-Yugoslav army general Vladimir Lazarevic were found guilty of deportation and forcible transfer and sentenced to 15 years.

All five will be given credit for time already served in the tribunal’s custody.

Reacting to news of the five men’s convictions, Kosovo’s President, Fatmir Sejdiu, told the AFP news agency he had “full trust” in the UN tribunal.

But Serbian Interior Minister Ivica Dacic, head of the Socialist Party founded by Milosevic, rejected the outcome, saying: “The verdict is a confirmation that this process has been political.”

Prosecution spokeswoman Olga Kavran told the Associated Press news agency that prosecutors welcomed the judgment, saying it proved Serbian forces had engaged in a brutal campaign to drive Albanians out of Kosovo.

Lost immunity

At the time of the conflict in Kosovo, real power lay in the hands of Mr Milutinovic’s mentor, Milosevic, says the BBC’s Helen Fawkes in Belgrade.

Acquitting Mr Milutinovic, the judge said he was not among Milosevic’s closest associates and was not a key player in the ruling political party.

Milosevic died in tribunal custody in 2006, before a verdict was delivered in his own trial, giving this trial much greater significance, our correspondent says.

The trial of Mr Milutinovic and his fellow defendants was the largest case at the ICTY to have reached this stage.

During the trial, which began in July 2006, both sides called more than 100 witnesses.

Prosecution witnesses testified that Serb forces shelled towns and villages, murdered civilians and raped women.

Although Mr Milutinovic was indicted during the conflict, he served out his full five-year term as president until the end of 2002.

It was only after he lost his immunity as president that he surrendered.

In total, the ICTY has indicted nine of the most senior Serb and Yugoslav officials for crimes alleged to have been carried out in Kosovo.

Vlajko Stojiljkovic, a senior police official close to Milosevic, was indicted but committed suicide in Belgrade in 2002. Vlastimir Djordevic, the former chief of Serbia’s Public Security Department and a fugitive until his arrest in June 2007, went on trial on 27 January.

This article was originally posted on BBC News

Related post: Verdict on Kosovo war crimes due

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